The communication secrets that put a man on the moon

Fifty years ago today, three men were sitting on top of a missile, hurtling up into the inky void, travelling the 240,000 miles (384,400 kilometres) to the moon.

The Saturn V rocket propelling them had contained almost 2,000 tonnes of fuel when it left the launchpad in Florida just three days earlier – a volatile mix of kerosene and liquid oxygen. If it had exploded, it would have done so with the force of a small atomic bomb.

Yet its precious cargo – Michael Collins, Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin and Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong – were alive and well. By 20 July, they had landed on the moon’s surface with just 15 seconds of fuel left. And within a week, they’d had returned safely back to Earth.

Those of us who have grown up with the knowledge that this happened may easily take it for granted. But it’s actually difficult to overstate the technical achievement all of this represented. Just eight years earlier, the Americans had never even been into space. To achieve what President John F. Kennedy called the greatest technical endeavour of the twentieth century in such a ridiculously short stretch of time seems nothing short of miraculous.

Yet it wasn’t achieved with a miracle. It was achieved by around 400,000 scientists, engineers and technicians, working in concert over an eight-year period. Sometimes working together perfectly, most of the time stumbling forwards – just like we all do – but, over time, making incredible progress.

To bring together the best of human knowledge and focus it on executing one insanely ambitious project was made possible only by the efficient transfer of knowledge from brain to brain. It was achieved by solving problems together, advancing science and sharing technical expertise, and by constant motivation to keep going.

Such a glamorous, spectacular endeavour was brought to fruition by the seemingly mundane: by countless reports, memos, telephone calls, presentations, meetings and telex messages. In other words, by written and verbal communication.

In this post, I want to look at three examples that were pivotal.
 

1. We choose to go

First, the whole project had been kicked off by what, in my opinion, is one of the best ‘presentations’ of all time. It was certainly one of the most persuasive. It was delivered by President John F. Kennedy to an audience of some 40,000 people, in the searing heat of Rice Stadium in Houston, Texas, on 12 September 1962. And it lit a fire under the whole project, committing the US to sending a man to the moon and returning him safely to Earth before the decade was out.

This must have sounded like the stuff of fantasy. At the time, it was only 35 years since Charles Lindbergh had made his first flight across the Atlantic. (Lindbergh would later calculate that the Saturn V rocket burned more fuel per second than he had used on his entire journey.)
 

18 minutes to alter the course of history

The speech had actually been drafted not by Kennedy but by a lawyer, White House Counsel Ted Sorensen. (You can see the original here, with additions in Kennedy’s own handwriting.) Sorensen managed to convey an immense amount of information while still managing to inspire and entertain. This meant using the best rhetorical devices, including pace and emotion, building to several high points in a talk that lasted less than 18 minutes. Those devices also included the highly effective use of repetition, as in this excerpt:
 

We choose to go to the moon! We choose to go to the moon…We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.

Repeating a key phrase in speech builds its impact. (Think of the phrase ‘I have a dream’, which Martin Luther King Jr. used no fewer than eight times in his 1963 address at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.) But it also builds credibility. Research has shown that we believe the phrases that we encounter most often.

Yet this was not just a speech to announce a project. The stakes were incredibly high. This was at the height of the Cold War and Kennedy was in trouble. The Soviet Union had beaten the US in the race to put a man in space, with cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin completing a full orbit of the Earth. The President was also still reeling from a national military humiliation in Cuba’s Bay of Pigs.
 

What words can do

He faced an uphill battle to win not just minds but hearts as well. A Gallup poll taken in 1961 had shown that 58% of the US electorate were against a moon mission. His challenge was not just to turn around public opinion but to galvanise an enormous research and development force and get them to achieve an almost unimaginable technical feat. Not only that, but he had to get them to do it before the decade was out.

But he did it (or rather, Ted Sorensen and Kennedy did). Less than eight years later, Neil Armstrong would step onto the gritty surface of our only natural satellite and declare the mission a success. It’s hard to think of a more demonstrably successful project, nor of a more persuasive presentation that inspired it.

So the next time you have to write or delivery a tricky presentation, remember what Kennedy faced. It might make it seem a little less daunting. (You can watch the speech for yourself here.)
 

2. Do we want to get to the moon or not?

The next example could not be more different nor more apparently mundane. This one was a nine-page memo typed out by a middle-ranking Nasa engineer called John Houbolt. But without it, the moon landing would never have happened.

The Apollo spacecraft we’re familiar with was actually three spacecraft. First, there was the propulsion and fuel system, including the gigantic Saturn V Rocket, which enabled the astronauts to escape the Earth’s gravity. Then there was the command module Columbia. It was in this that Michael Collins orbited the moon while he waited for Armstrong and Aldrin to explore the lunar surface.

Finally, there was the lunar module Eagle, in which they’d make the landing itself. Success relied on the lunar module separating from Columbia. Then, once the exploration of the moon was complete, its top part would detach and return to dock with Columbia, then deliver all three men back to Earth.

Yet using this multi-stage system had not always been the plan favoured by Nasa. For months, the prevailing plan had been to send an entire rocket to land on the moon and then bring the whole thing back. This was despite the fact that this would have meant making the whole thing much bigger – so big, in fact, that it’s hard to see how it would ever have got off the ground.

The multi-stage system (the lunar orbit rendezvous, to give it its technical name) was the only one that would work. But Houbolt was the only one to champion it. In fact, his superiors were so fixed on their alternative idea that he was told to delete any reference to his from a presentation he was due to present at a Nasa mission conference. Eyes would roll when he persisted in raising it at mission meetings. People would walk out.
 

A risky memo

In the end, he had to go above his boss’s head and send a strongly worded memo to Robert Seamans, one of Nasa’s most senior administrators. Houbolt knew this approach could land him in hot water. He even acknowledged it in the memo itself:

I fully realize that contacting you in this manner is somewhat unorthodox; but the issues at stake are crucial enough to us all that an unusual course is warranted.

Yet still he felt the need to express the situation as he saw it in the strongest terms:
 

The greatest objection that has been raised about our lunar rendezvous plan is that it does not conform to the “ground rules”. This to me is nonsense; the important question is, “Do we want to get to the moon or not?”, and, if so, why do we have to restrict our thinking along a certain narrow channel?

(You can read his memo in full on page 55 of this PDF, from the Nasa archive.)
 

Freeing knowledge

Now, I’m not saying the lesson here is that you should always go above the head of your immediate superior. In fact, my point here is aimed at managers and other leaders.

That’s because one of the biggest assets in any organisations is its knowledge. Some of that knowledge may be captured in databases or documents such as standard operating procedures. But it’s likely that the bulk of it is locked between the ears of its employees. Ignoring that knowledge makes no sense. And the only way to unlock it – to get it out of the brains of experts and into that of others (expert or otherwise) – is by letting them communicate with you.

You owe it not just to your people but to your organisation itself to give them a voice. It makes no sense to shut them down, especially in situations where their contribution could be critical.

If Seamans had censured Houbolt for his insubordination rather than taking his message at face value, there would have been no moon mission. Just a lot more spending with nothing to show for it.

3. ‘Give us a reading on the 1202 program alarm’

In aviation, air traffic controllers generally communicate with pilots in clipped tones. Their goal is clarity, even when radio reception may be poor. Clarity often means using as few words as possible.

Neil Armstrong was a pilot. A man of few words at the best of times, he knew the value of precise communication. And he certainly needed it on the Apollo 11 mission. At Mission Control in Houston, there were around 50 flight controllers on duty at any one time. If you listen to some of the recordings on the Nasa website, you could be forgiven for thinking they were all talking at once.

But some things stand out. Shortly after the Eagle had started its descent from 50,000 feet above the moon’s surface to attempt a landing, something went wrong. An amber light flashed up a program alarm to signify a problem with the spacecraft’s flight computer.
 

Unknown error

Buzz Aldrin investigated and came up with the error code 1202. Minutes later, it was still flashing. ‘Give us a reading on the 1202 program alarm,’ Armstrong said, with uncharacteristic urgency in his voice. You can hear it for yourself here:

1202 Alarm: Armstrong’s voice sounded unusually urgent

The person assigned to act on that message was Steve Bales, a 26-year-old former Nasa intern. His boss, Chief Flight Director Gene Kranz, would later describe him as one of the original computer nerds. Bales had no idea what a 1202 program alarm was.

This wasn’t the first time that he’d encountered an unknown alarm, though. A similar thing had happened in practice, just two weeks earlier (as Kevin Fong recounts in the superb BBC podcast series, ‘13 minutes to the moon’). As a result, Bales had aborted the simulated mission – needlessly, as it turned out. That had spooked Kranz. It turns out that the flight computer could throw up numerous such alarms, each with their own code. And no one person knew what they all meant.

Even false alarms can be fatal in any kind of flight, not just in space. Alarms are designed to be hard to ignore. So one that sounds in error can still distract the pilot enough to crash, simply because they end up focusing on it to the detriment of all their other tasks. That’s the case even on the most straightforward of aircraft flights, let alone on the first flight to the moon.
 

A lifesaving document

That’s why Kranz instructed Bales to compile a complete list of the meaning of every alarm code. This was no easy task: the scheduled launch was only two weeks away. But Bales achieved it: by communicating with experts around the world and enabling them to work together to produce a document that decoded every one of the numbers that the flight computer could spit out.

Thanks to that early example of global cooperation – made possible, of course, by lots of communication – Bales was able to reassure the person in direct contact with Armstrong that he could safely ignore the 1202 alarm and continue with the landing.

Communication put a man on the moon

The common view in the business world is that communication is a soft skill. This is to differentiate it from technical or professional skills. But this also dooms it to be forever treated as a ‘nice-to-have’ – especially when budgets get low.

This is a big mistake. Without communication, most projects would never start. Communication at work is about sharing knowledge, so that we achieve things together that we could never achieve alone. It’s about persuading people to do what we believe to be the best thing to do. It’s about inspiring others to take action. And it’s about ensuring that the right action gets taken. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the Apollo mission to land a man on the moon.

So as you watch the moon landing coverage this week, think of all the communication that made it possible. Because without it, no technical endeavour would ever get off the ground.
 

This post originally appeared on the Emphasis blog.

Image credit: N Armstrong/Nasa

References

Hasher, L (1977). Frequency and the conference of referential validity. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 16 (1): 107-112

Jordan, J. (2003). Kennedy’s Romantic Moon and Its Rhetorical Legacy for Space Exploration. Rhetoric and Public Affairs, 6 (2): 209–231.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. (1963): Address at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute

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